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Old Plumbing Pipes Guide: Types of Pipes and Maintenance


Plumbing pipes and systems play a critical role in commercial buildings, helping ensure the safe and reliable delivery of water. However, with the majority of U.S. buildings being more than 24 years old at the end of 2021, the odds that a plumbing issue will, at some point, impact your facility are fairly high. When issues like reduced water pressure, overflowing toilets, water discoloration or sluggish drains start to emerge, it’s time to develop a system that will help alert you to potential plumbing issues before they become larger problems. The age, design, usage and maintenance of your plumbing system are all factors that can affect its longevity. This guide explores some common issues with aging plumbing systems and old pipes and the steps you can take to help mitigate problems with this critical building component.

What Are the Different Types of Pipes?

A building’s plumbing system involves copper, stainless steel, brass and plastic parts and equipment. It’s made up of pipes, fixtures, fittings and two different subsystems — one that brings freshwater in and one that removes wastewater. There are several different types of pipes used in commercial plumbing systems:  

  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) has a wide variety of plumbing uses, from drainage pipes to water mains. It’s commonly used for irrigation, home and building supply piping.
  • Chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) can stand temperatures up to about 180 degrees Fahrenheit and can be used for hot and cold water.
  • Copper pipe is commonly used in the construction industry for water supply and refrigerant lines in HVAC systems.
  • Galvanized pipe is a steel or iron pipe that has been galvanized with a zinc coating, which keeps water from corroding the pipe.
  • Stainless steel pipes are expensive but especially good for areas where corrosion is a major concern and strength is a priority.
  • Brass pipes are rust-proof and corrosion-resistant. They are among the most durable and long-lasting for commercial plumbing installations.
  • Cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) is a polyethylene material that has changed molecular structure using a chemical or a physical process, whereby the polymer chains are chemically linked. Cross-linking of polyethylene into PEX for pipes results in improved properties, including elevated temperature strength and performance, chemical resistance and resistance to cracking.   

How Long Do Pipes Last? 

Being aware of the expected lifespan of your plumbing components can help you stay ahead of any repairs or updates your system may need, in addition to helping prevent leaks, backups and other costly issues. Several factors can influence the longevity of plumbing systems, including high usage, lack of maintenance, location, corrosion, defects and improper installation. Lead is also a major concern for buildings that were constructed before 1978, as there is a chance that these fixtures could contaminate a facility’s drinking water. However, a plumbing system’s lifespan generally depends on the materials used to construct its pipes:

  • Brass: 70-100 years
  • Cast iron: 80-100 years 
  • Copper: 50-70 years
  • Galvanized steel: 70-100 years
  • PEX: 25-40 years
  • PVC, CPVC or plastic: 50-80 years

10 Warning Signs of Plumbing Problems

When your plumbing system starts to break down, several signs will alert you to an issue.  

1. Stains

Water stains on walls and underneath plumbing pipes are telltale signs of leaks and water damage, indicating pipe replacement will soon be needed. Damaged wallpaper, wood or paint can also be signs of a potential leak.

2. Leaks

Obvious leaks and drips are the most reliable signs that a plumbing problem requires pipe or fixture replacements.  

3. Pipe and tubing damage

Look for dents, dimpling, flaking and discoloration. Damage or changes in the physical characteristics of plumbing pipes and tubing can signal the need for replacement.

4. Clogged drains or toilets

Slow draining in sinks and toilets is often a sign of a clogged pipe. Dirt, debris and undissolved particles can all slow down drainage so try to address any slow drainage problems immediately to avoid a blockage, overflow or flood. 

5. Water color

If your employees notice a discoloration in the water from your building’s taps, it could signify that the water pipes are corroded and need to be replaced as soon as possible.

6. Foul odors

Unpleasant odors from plumbing fixtures can indicate a blockage in the sewer vent stack. As gases build up over time, they can lead to dangerous sewer leaks affecting your entire commercial property.

7. Strange noises

Hearing gurgling or creaking noises in your walls when you flush or turn on faucets can indicate pipe or water pressure issues.

8. Low water pressure

Poor water pressure could indicate a blockage in your plumbing system’s supply lines. The pressure loss may have been gradual (which doesn’t necessarily indicate an urgent problem), but if the loss is sudden, there could be a broken or completely blocked pipe in your system.

9. Water temperature problems

If you notice your water is suddenly not getting hot enough, or you are quickly running out of hot water, there could be an issue with your water heater.

10. Increase in water bills

If your facility is using more water than usual and your bill keeps rising, it’s time to conduct a plumbing inspection. High water bills are often due to leakages, so it’s important to have a professional examine your system to find the source of any potential blockages or leaks.

In addition to quickly addressing pipe-related issues, companies can upgrade to more modern fixtures (i.e., faucets, toilets, flush valves, etc.) to help reduce headaches and repair or replacement costs while significantly reducing water consumption.

According to FacilitiesNet, identifying common problems with plumbing fixtures can help indicate long-term problems. Comparing data on repair costs vs. upgrade costs along with projected savings can help managers make more informed decisions on whether it’s best to repair or upgrade their plumbing system.

Preventive Plumbing Maintenance

FacilitiesNet recommends a mix of preventive and predictive maintenance to help building managers monitor for potential plumbing issues. This includes using test plugs to gauge pipe pressure, inspecting fixtures periodically and repairing, replacing or upgrading valves as needed. Another approach to preventative maintenance is using pattern recognition software or embedding artificial intelligence (AI) sensors into key plumbing components to help identify parts that need repair or replacement.

Other preventative maintenance steps include:    

  • Keeping up with fixture innovations and selecting the best quality fixtures for the application requirements.
  • Installing water flowmeters to monitor for potential leaks.
  • Mapping plumbing systems to help simplify troubleshooting.
  • Ensuring preventative maintenance (PM) and predictive maintenance (PdM) practices are scheduled annually and employees are trained and ready to handle the work.   

Consider using these preventive maintenance checklists as a starting point for regular maintenance activities that can help extend the service life of equipment and facilities and keep your facility functioning. By developing an alert system that enables you to respond to the warning signs outlined in this article, building managers can help prevent large repair bills and the persistent problems that arise when plumbing problems are ignored.

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The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.